On Monday, 29 November 2016, the Irish European Parliament member Brian Hayes hosted a conference on Eritrea in the European Parliament. Despite the fact that the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (COIE) found in its latest report the perpetrating of crimes against humanity by Eritrean officials, the country’s Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel was invited as keynote speaker of the meeting. Gebremeskel was present despite protests from human rights advocates and more than 800 Eritreans and supporters who petitioned against the meeting taking place. In addition, 5 Members of the European Parliament made a press release indicating that they did not endorse the meeting.
The event centered around development opportunities for Eritrea. While business interests were well represented, human rights violations were left largely unaddressed. Gebremeskel denied the content accuracy of the COIE report. He admitted the continued existence of the national service but claimed that it was largely misunderstood by its critics. The topic of human rights was also side-lined by the European Commission representative Hans Stausboll and UNDP Representative Christine Umutoni. Likewise, their speech focused on the economic troubles in Eritrea, rather than the political reasons for the refugee flows from the country. Umutoni instead highlighted the great improvements of the country and called for a stronger engagement with Eritrea. According to Umutoni, patience and adjustments to the Eritrean philosophy would eventually result in positive outcomes and the investment in job creations would lead to a decrease in migration.
John Weakliam spoke on behalf of his organisation VITA and their agriculture programmes in the region in order demonstrate the recent success of development efforts. Paul Donaldson, CEO of Australian company Danakali, was invited and praised the cooperation with Eritrea in the field of potash extraction in the Danakil basin of Eritrea.
Some audience members questioned the validity of the speakers’ arguments in the following short debate. An Eritrean refugee, who just recently fled the country, questioned the usefulness of the financial aid and asked who was likely to benefit from it since the targeted beneficiaries are forced to attend the national service for an unspecified time. He stressed that political reasons, not poverty, were the reason that people flee. Furthermore, a human rights activist from the Stop Slavery in Eritrea Campaign brought attention to the number of disappeared and imprisoned people which had also not been mentioned during the entire meeting.
The panel did not address such critical questions in any extensive way. Since critique and human rights concerns were overall very much bypassed in the discussion, the event eventually appeared to be very much supportive of the regime but less of the Eritrean people.
Another report on the meeting was published by Martin Plaut. Read Plaut’s report here: https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2016/11/28/eritrea-comes-to-brussels/